Loyola Dons Its Battle Gear : Basketball: Lions draw San Francisco in first-round West Coast Conference Tournament game.
The Loyola Marymount basketball team takes an enviable record into this weekend’s West Coast Conference Tournament at Santa Clara’s Toso Pavilion.
The Lions have dominated the 5-year-old tourney, which decides the WCC’s automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament. They have won the last three titles, have not lost a WCC postseason game since 1987 and have won seven consecutive WCC tournament games.
They were on their way to making it eight in a row on March 4 when Hank Gathers collapsed as the Lions were pulling away from Portland. Gathers was never revived and the rest of the tournament was canceled after his shocking death.
Some would like to see the tournament or the most-valuable-player trophy renamed in Gathers’ memory.
More immediately, the second-seeded Lions would like to keep their signature on it.
That may prove challenging in an eight-team field where at least six teams have a legitimate chance of winning. In Saturday’s opening-round games, San Diego faces Gonzaga at 11:30 a.m., Loyola plays San Francisco at 2, Pepperdine faces Portland at 6 and St. Mary’s plays Santa Clara at 8:30. Semi-finals are at 5 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday, with the championship at 9 p.m. Monday. Saturday’s and Sunday’s games will be televised on SportsChannel. The title game will be shown on ESPN.
Top-seeded Pepperdine, the WCC’s runaway champion at 13-1, has won 13 consecutive games and Loyola is right behind with a 10-game skein.
Fifth-seeded Santa Clara (7-7) has the home-court advantage and third-seeded San Diego (8-6) owns the only WCC victory over Pepperdine. Fourth-seeded St. Mary’s (7-7) is a team that, in one conference official’s words, “the others want to avoid like the plague. They will upset somebody.”
That leaves sixth-seeded Gonzaga (5-9), No. 7 University of San Francisco (4-10) and Portland (3-11). Gonzaga and Portland limped down the stretch.
USF, which has its lineup intact for the first time since early January, could be capable of a surprise. Loyola’s winning streak started against the Dons on Jan. 26, and the Lions beat them again the next week. But USF was without its best big man, Darryl Johnson, in the previous games against Loyola and several other Dons were out of the lineup or playing hurt. A healthy USF team has enough good athletes to be dangerous. The Dons were 3-0 in WCC play before all the injuries began to take their toll.
This time around the roles are reversed, with the Dons healthy and the Lions battling injury problems.
“We have had only three games in conference with our whole team all together,” USF Coach Jim Brovelli said. “The kids are excited, their morale is up. I think this should be a very competitive tournament. It wouldn’t surprise me to see one or two teams that are unexpected . . . playing Monday night.”
Johnson, a burly 6-foot-6 junior, missed several weeks because of an ankle injury, but returned for the last five games, getting double figures in scoring and rebounding in four of them. The Dons also boast one of the WCC’s top scorers in forward Tim Owens and a fine point guard in freshman Orlando Smart, who has already set a school record for assists. The other starting guard, Kevin Weeks, missed several games because of a family illness but has returned.
“They’re good, and I haven’t seen Johnson recently, even on film,” Loyola Coach Jay Hillock said. “I think they’ll probably try to slow (the pace) down and (rebound) us to death. But I’m not so concerned with them as with us. Both of our shooting guards, Ross Richardson and Craig Holt, are hurt. They may not get off the bench. I’m concerned about that, obviously. Those are the guys who spread the defense and open some things up for Terrell (Lowery).”
In recent seasons the Lions developed an attitude that they owned the tournament until somebody proved otherwise.
“We used to feel like that,” Hillock said. “With the injuries, now we have to take it a day at a time.”
Holt, a junior who teams with Lowery in the backcourt and is the only Lion to have started all 29 games, injured his left (non-shooting) shoulder. Richardson, a freshman who ranks among the nation’s leading three-point shooters, suffered a groin pull last weekend against Santa Clara. Neither has been able to practice this week.
Hillock said freshman Rahim Harris would start if neither of the injured players can. That leaves much of the offense to Lowery and center Richard Petruska, who scored a season-high 29 points at USF.
Lowery, a leading candidate for the WCC player-of-the-year award that will be announced today, came into the week fourth in the nation in scoring at 28.8 points and tied for third in assists, averaging 9.2. He needs four assists to break Corey Gaines’ season school record of 271.
The Lions have been strong closers in recent seasons. They are 39-8 in February and March the past four seasons and 20-3 in the past two.
Given the strength of their schedule and national popularity, the Lions figure to get consideration for the National Invitation Tournament if they advance a round or two in the WCC tournament, even if they don’t win it. But if they get bounced by USF, March madness may become March sadness.